In the timeless, venerated tradition of writers reusing their own material when they’re jammed with work, super hungover or just don’t feel like it, I’m rerunning a short but popular series from my travelogue entitled “Don’t Go There.”
Chapter One, “Don’t Go to Berlin,” was written after a disagreeable visit in the summer of 2003.
I realize that any travel writer with even a shred of integrity wouldn’t title an article “Don’t Go to Berlin.” It seems as if doing this might be a sweeping, unfair summary of one of the largest and important cities in Europe and indeed the world. A city with huge and important historical significance. A city of countless ethnicities and cultures coming together. A city with a shameless level of admiration for David Hasselhoff. Well, if you are thinking these things, to that I say have you ever been to Berlin? If not, then with all due respect, shut your pie-hole.
Berlin is a city full of drunk, ornery, rude, tourist-haters. It is a city that boasts countless, expensive tourists sights ostensibly catering to people from all over the world, yet not having gone through the trouble of printing any information or literature in any other language except German. It’s a city where the ongoing, open competition of Let’s-Give-the-Tourists-Wrong-Directions-on-Purpose has been honed to a fine art. It’s a city that has been abandoned by all dedicated and talented map makers. It’s a city where authorities target tourists for minor, laughable offences like J-walking. In short, it’s a city that will take your money and dignity and give you nothing in return.
I arrived in Berlin with the intention of having a great time. I had never been to Germany, so I was ready to do some major adventure seeking and polishing of my long forgotten high school German language skills. My first introduction to the gaping void that is the Berliner’s dedication to customer service was within seconds after arriving in the city when I tried valiantly, but unsuccessfully to find my hostel.
For the first (and last) time in my travels, I’d booked my hostel online under extreme duress and then run off without noting the address or directions. My bad. But never mind that, I was in one of Northern Europe’s primary tourist cities and staying at one of the largest hostels on the continent (Generator Berlin). There should be some kind of tourist assistance scheme, right? Someone will be kind enough to at least tell me which direction the metro is, right? People in a civilized country will have at least a basic grasp on manners, right?
The only information that the two guys at the bus station “Information Desk” were willing to impart was “Ask at the hotel across the street,” then returned to the exhausting task of chain-smoking and idle chitchat. Undaunted, I requested a map so I could try to figure out my next move on my own, but to my amazement they didn’t have a map of the city. This had never happened to me before. In every other European city I had visited, complimentary city maps were forced on me a minimum of three times a day. Whenever anyone wanted to give me directions, they’d whip out a map and a highlighter, draw a clear line to where I needed to go and send me on my way. I left every city with about 16 marked-up and crumpled maps at the bottom of my daybag. A bus station information desk not having maps was like a Republican not having an affinity for reckless slander of a sitting Democrat president. I was dumbfounded. I asked if I might look up the address of the hostel in their phonebook, but they didn’t have one of those either. I resisted the urge to ask them exactly what information they did have to offer and instead heaved my worldly belongings across the street to the hotel.
They were one step closer to being reasonably helpful as they had a phonebook that I could look through, but much to my dismay, my hostel was not listed. I was starting to get pissed off. The first of many pissed off episodes for the week. Eventually, after roaming through half the city on the admittedly robust and efficient metro, I was able to find my hostel and get settled without the benefit of assistance or even a half-smile from anyone in the tourism industry.
Even after this discouraging series of unpleasantness, I was eager to get out and see Berlin. After mulling over my options, I decided to get started by walking in the general direction of the TV Tower, the highest vantage point in Berlin and easily visible from my hostel. Unfortunately, the TV Tower was so big, that I disastrously misjudged the distance and time it would take to walk there. What I thought would be a pleasant 15 minute walk turned into a 45 minute trudge-a-thon down busy, dirty, loud Berlin streets.
After waiting in line for 40 minutes and paying five dollars to get into the elevator to the top of the tower I was treated to an amazing view of Berlin sprawling in every direction. Every part of the observation deck of the TV Tower had maps highlighting all of the notable buildings and monuments visible in every direction.
After reading dozens of descriptions of the visible sights from the tower – my first and last encounter with anything at any tourist sight written in a language other than German – I began to notice an unpleasant, yet slightly amusing pattern. The last sentence in virtually each description read, “After being totally destroyed in World War II, such-and-such was rebuilt in 19-blah, blah.” It was sad to see that every structure in Berlin over two bricks high was only 50 years old at best, but it started to get predictably comical when one description after another ended with “Of course, (fill in the blank) was completely leveled during the war…” I started walking around saying something to that effect about every sight that I observed from the Tower. After scrutinizing each sight for a respectful amount of time, I’d mutter to myself in a low voice, “After being blown to smithereens, in the war…” Typically, no one was in ear shot to hear, much less understand, this hilarious monologue, but nevertheless I succeeded in entertaining myself immensely.
This fleeting moment of enjoyment was cut short, however when I stepped up to the completely deserted bar where I used one of the stools for support as I fished through my daybag for my camera. The surly bartender, obviously having nothing better to do, was on top of me in seconds. I don’t know precisely what was said, but my dim grasp of German allowed me to glean enough to understand that unless I was planning to buy an over-priced drink, I was not allowed to take up precious space at the bar on account of the possibility that 22 thirsty people might suddenly appear out of nowhere and the stool I was using would be needed by a paying customer. I picked up my bag, took one purposeful step away from the stool and continued my search while complimenting the bartender on his tireless dedication to his work.
Knowing now that Berlin had no original historical buildings, cathedrals or ruins to tour, I crossed that task off my list and started visiting a never-ending succession of tourist sights that offered nothing in the way of non-German literature. Even such tourist-ground-zero sights like the Egyptian Museum and the zoo had nothing written in any other language. For a nation that shares boarders with countries whose native languages include Dutch, Danish, French, Czech and Polish, not to mention the bus loads of Italians, Brazilians, Spanish, Japanese and countless other nationalities arriving every day, one would think that the sausage-brained drunks in the nation’s capital might have invested the time it would take to make their tourism offerings a little more accessible to non-Germans.
Navigating Berlin is more difficult than any city I have ever visited, including St Paul, Minnesota. Unlike cities throughout the rest of Europe, Berlin does not have a clear, defined city center that one can walk across in 20 minutes or less. Being a very young city by European standards, Berlin seems to have suffered from the urban sprawl that is so common in the United States. It’s rare to find anything within walking distance of your current position and if it was, there was no way you would know it. Even if you could get a map of Berlin, it would be as useless as Windows 98. Berlin is so big that without an alpha listing of the street names, it is totally impossible to orient yourself. That didn’t matter, because decent maps of Berlin are maliciously not available in Berlin.
If, after I’m done slagging this place, you’re feeling lucky and decide to waste your time visiting this unfulfilling pit of bad vibes, I suggest that you purchase and bring along most, if not all, of the following items:
• A professional, satellite charted, fully detailed street map with a complete alpha listing of the streets on the back, acquired before you arrive
• A compass
• Ten miles of string
• A European-network cellular phone
• A GPS wrist watch
• A bi-lingual, ambidextrous guide with at least 20-20 vision, who has spent a minimum of 10 years traversing the streets of Berlin
• A clairvoyant and
• A sherpa with a full Mount Everest-issue gear and food supply, including a mountain yak to carry everything
If you do not have these items/people/beast, you will be doomed to spend most of your time lost and confused, with one of those itty bitty muscles in your eye twitching uncontrollably as a result of your dangerously heightened blood pressure.
If you are still naïve enough to ask anyone for directions in Berlin by your second day, you can count on one of two things happening:
• They will happily give you wrong directions on purpose
• They will be unwilling to even try to deal with the language barrier for a second and instead they will just look at you like you are speaking in tongues and refuse to help you, even if you pronounce the street or destination name perfectly or write it down for them.
One frustrating afternoon, a fellow hostel resident and I spent a ridiculous amount of time wandering around looking for the Berlin Zoo. The Berlin Zoo is monstrously huge and we knew we were close having alighted from the metro at the ‘Zoo’ station, so the mere fact that we could not find the goddamn thing in the first place was embarrassing enough, but then, like idiots, we tried to ask directions from an ice cream vendor.
First we asked in English, which isn’t as culturally insensitive as it sounds when you factor in that English is required for eight years in all German primary and secondary schools and that ‘zoo’ is the same word in German as it is in English, with only a slight adjustment in pronunciation (roughly, “tszoo”). Nevertheless, the ice cream man feigned total confusion. Then we asked in simple, but perfect German. More contrived confusion. Then, gluttons for punishment that we were, we just said the word “zoo,” repeatedly, and slowly. This couldn’t have been any simpler, but the man just emphatically shrugged, twinkle-eyed, barely suppressing a shit-eating grin of mean-spirited delight. The bastard pretending to not know the word ‘zoo’ was exasperating enough, but we were two blocks away from the effing place!
After a few minutes of that maddening insanity, he grew tired of the gag and brushed us off onto guy standing off to the side who, of course, proceeded to give us careful and detailed directions in the exact opposite direction.
So, by the end of Day Two, the tourist wisdom that I’d acquired regarding getting around Berlin was as follows; maps were useless/unavailable, asking directions was a hilarious waste of time, signage was almost non-existent and nothing was easy to find, even if your destination took up one fricking square mile of real estate. I managed to get to most places using the meager tourist brochures that were available at the hostel, which usually provided a metro stop to each destination and then once I got that far I’d just follow the crowd.
One of my failed goals in Berlin was to rent a car, get on the Autobahn and drive like a bastard. I had daydreamed at length about the moment of my arrival at the car rental place.
Me: “Hi! I’d like to rent the fastest car you have for two hours please!”
Car Rental Guy: “OK. May I ask why you need our fastest car for only two hours?”
Me: “Well, I plan to get on the Autobahn, drive like a maniac for an hour, then turn around and drive back even faster.”
Car Rental Guy: “Will you be buying insurance then?”
Me: “Was Hitler a repressed homosexual?”
Unfortunately after randomly walking around Berlin for five days, I did not run across a single car rental office. I’m pretty sure this was all part of yet another massive anti-tourist conspiracy to keep us doofus Americans from getting on the road and biting it at 190 MPH and creating a ton of paperwork for the guys who are in charge of shipping foreigners’ body-bags home.
One compliment that I can honestly offer about Berlin is that the people watching is deeply enriched by the massive beer consumption that goes on there. If you have ever so much as seen a beer before, you know that Germany is the center of the beer universe. Beer gardens are everywhere, serving beer in one liter mugs. No wimpy pint glasses here. People can be seen meandering around in public places as early as 10:00AM shamelessly swigging from cans of beer without having to go through the laughable practice of disguising it in brown paper bags like us silly Americans. Having that many drunks wandering around the city 24 hours a day made the simple experience of sitting on a bench in a square with an ice cream and watching an impromptu, all-star cast of winos re-enacting “Swan Lake” more entertaining than a Three Stooges marathon.
I tried to like Berlin. I really did. I hung around for five days, walked all over the city, ate the food, visited the sights, got babbling drunk at an obscenely early hour… I simply could not find a formula for general enjoyment or any redeeming qualities beyond the renowned, but culturally limited clubbing scene.
It’s a hell-hole, plain and simple. Don’t go to Berlin.